Lac Mégantic – will we listen this time?

Dec 15, 2013

On the 6th of July of this year, Canadians awoke to images of a tremendously dangerous derailment of a Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA) freight train and the explosion of its volatile cargo in the Québec town of Lac Mégantic, on its way to Saint John, New Brunswick from Montreal. By mid-July, Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators reported that:

“At approximately 23:00, the train stopped at the designated MMA (crew change point at Mile 7.40 near Nantes, Quebec. The single operator secured the train and departed for the evening leaving the lead locomotive unlocked and the train unattended on mainline track with a descending grade of 1.2%.

“At about 23:50, a local resident reported a fire on the lead locomotive (MMA 5017) to the 911 emergency call centre. Subsequently the local fire department responded along with another MMA employee. At about midnight, similar with established operating practice, emergency shutdown procedures were initiated on the lead locomotive and the fire was extinguished. After extinguishing the fire, the second MMA employee and the fire department departed the site, again leaving the train unattended.

“Shortly before 01:00 on 06 July 2013, the train started to move and gathered speed as it rolled uncontrolled down the descending grade into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 7.4 miles southeast of Nantes. While travelling at well in excess of the authorized speed, the train derailed near the centre of Lac-Mégantic. The locomotives separated from the train and came to a stop about ½ mile east of the derailment. The derailed equipment included the box car (buffer) and 63 tank cars.

“Several derailed tank cars released product resulting in multiple explosions and subsequent fires causing an estimated 38 fatalities and 12 persons still missing, extensive damage to the town centre and precipitated the evacuation of about 2000 people from the surrounding area.”

Surprisingly, other occurrences of “unintended movement of equipment” have been investigated by the TSB. In April 2002, a Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) Train collided with stationary freight train which had been left unattended in the siding near Natal, British Columbia.

Now, some 4 months later, after $120 million in expenses for initial clean-up, another $190 million has been approved by PM Harper and the province of Québec to decontaminate the centre of town. All have recognized that money cannot bring back the 47 victims whose remains have been identified or those yet to be found, nor erase the trauma and disruption to so many, however, the respected mayor and outstanding leader of the stoic community, Colette Roy-Laroche, responded with grace: “Today’s announcement is coming at the right time; with winter and the holiday period around the corner, we really needed some good news.”

She told all that she had received estimates that this phase would last at least 18 months and that approximately 40% of the decontaminated soil has been excavated and removed.

Respected local Écho de Frontenac journalist, Ms Claudia Collard, was on holiday at the time of the disaster, but on her return, commented about the impact of this tragic occurrence:

“I had much difficulty believing what I saw and heard. It was surrealistic. Back at work, however, a few days later, I faced an incredible shock at what I saw. Like so many of my fellow citizens, I cried easily and frequently and floated about in a vaporous unreality. At the same time, I ­covered the news [including] our two new heroes, our mayor Mme Roy-Laroche and fire chief Denis Lauzon […] I must admit that at the start I had no objectivity and it was well that I did not. My work proved very therapeutic indeed. As to the costs, these have been estimated at over $500 million. To date, it would be realistic to say that about $80 million has been spent. The soil decontamination itself has not even begun, so I would not be surprised if the costs would rise above the quoted half billion dollars, once the town returns to normal. We feel the many unknowns of our citizens: When will we have access to our devastated city centre? Will we be able to reconstruct or must we be satisfied with a central empty green space too contaminated to rebuild? Will the railway really be moved out of town; if so, when might we know?”

As the Executive Editor of FrontLine Security magazine, I called to extend words of solidarity to Denis Lauzon, the outstanding fire chief of Mégantic, who many watched on TV as he reassured his fellow citizens and relatives mere hours after the explosions. He was reticent, as were the local authorities of the Sûreté du Québec, to respond to technical questions at this time because of the on-going inquiry on specific issues.

As Wendy A. Tadros, Chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, wrote in The Globe and Mail (16 October 2013):

“The next accident, however, won’t be exactly the same… Prevention, therefore, now means taking a wider view, and adopting even broader safety measures. It will mean that corporate leaders and government will have to think hard about worst-case scenarios and question the way things have always been done. It will mean a proactive plan that not only meets but exceeds government regulations.

“And so, as our railways and shippers ramp up plans to move even more oil by rail, let’s hope everyone involved understands what’s at stake: safety, yes – but also the trust of Canadians from coast to coast. Because it’s clear that the people of Canada already know what the risks are. They understand that every day, hundreds of freight trains carry goods all across the country – and that those trains follow tracks that run along their rivers and lakes, and through their cities. It’s also clear that they deserve more than “messaging” about safety being the top priority. They deserve action – and freedom from the fear that the next accident will happen in their city, at a railway crossing in their town, or even in their backyard.”

FrontLine strongly encourages such change. Indeed, we call for immediate and focussed action by all our governments and industry to enforce effective transportation policies to reassure Canadians that their safety remains paramount.

Clive Addy is Executive Editor of FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2013